By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — Two Bucknell University professors who specialize in domestic politics don’t expect the foreign policy issues in tonight’s debate to be decisive factors for most of the undecided voters — the domestic state of the nation seems more central to the contest this year.
And yet, interest in this final of three presidential debates is high, said Scott Meinke and Chris Ellis, both of whom teach political science at the university.
“I think it’s fair to say (President Barack) Obama won the third debate, or at the very least, blunted the momentum after (Republican presidential nominee Mitt) Romney earned a pretty convincing win in the first one,” Ellis said.
Obama’s slide in the polls has stopped, and his core supporters feel good again.
For that reason, Ellis said: “I’m not sure that the last debate will be perceived as a ‘rubber match,’ but rather as an independent event. This is the last time we will get to see the candidates debate one another, so if either scores a convincing win, this debate will probably matter much more than the first two.”
Meanwhile, Meinke has found it difficult to distinguish a clear “winner” of any of the debates, since “winning” the debate means different things to different people, he said.
“A candidate may win on policy substance, on style and presentation, or simply on beating the widely held expectations about how he would perform,” Meinke said. “At the first debate, Romney had a particularly strong performance and Obama a weak performance by all three measures. At the second debate, I think Obama did at least as well as Romney in articulating and defending his positions on policy, and he seemed energized by the town-hall format and the give-and-take. Romney’s very assertive debating style, which served him well in the first debate, seemed to play badly at times in the context of the second debate.”
The third presidential debate is taking place with national polling showing an effectively tied race and following a debate that had the candidates closely matched. So Meinke thinks interest will not fall off from the first two presidential debates. Viewers should keep in mind, he said, that the audience for the debates skews toward politically engaged voters who are already committed. “To the extent that truly undecided voters are affected by the debates, the effect is more likely to come through the media discussion in the days after the debate.”
This will be the debate with the least policy interest, Ellis said, just because most voters don’t care about foreign policy all that much.
“Put simply, it’s very rare for Americans to vote based on what’s happening beyond our borders, and that will almost certainly be true this year as well,” he said. Even the situations in Libya and Syria, which are in the news, just aren’t nearly as relevant to most voters as the economy, health care, the deficit or the candidates themselves. But Ellis believes that people will still watch in similar numbers to the first two, because the debate is as much about the interpersonal spectacle as it is the true debating of policy alternatives. And so if one candidate presents himself as being better equipped to address foreign policy challenges, that may matter.
The Romney campaign has been aggressive in questioning the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Ellis said, although there is really less contrast between the candidates’ positions on foreign policy than there is on economics.
“At the second presidential debate and at the vice-presidential debate,” Ellis said, “we saw exchanges over Obama policies in the Middle East, China and elsewhere. The Romney campaign has sought to draw a contrast on these issues rhetorically to suggest a theme of confusion and weakness in Obama’s policies. In the end, though, I think that is a contrast that is more important for committed Romney supporters than for persuadable voters.”
Ellis thinks the difficulty in debating foreign policy for both participants is their basic similarity on so many issues.
Obama campaigned on taking a much different approach to foreign policy than he actually has. And liberals and civil libertarians, and maybe those who gave him the Nobel Peace Prize, are upset with him for that.
“But Romney can’t exploit this perceived flip-flopping, because he agrees with much of what Obama has done,” Ellis said. “So there are lots of foreign policy issues that deserve a serious discussion, the use of unmanned drones, indefinite detention of suspected terrorists and the like that won’t get one, just because there’s so little room between the candidates. I imagine that this debate will be driven mostly by discussions of foreign policy performance. Obama will be arguing that he deserves credit for his foreign policy successes, Osama bin Laden as the main example, and Romney will say Obama deserves blame for his failures —Libya as the main example.”
The Benghazi issue continues to be the most difficult foreign policy question for Obama to answer in the campaign, Meinke said. “I would expect Obama to continue to walk a fine line between pushing back against Republican allegations of scandal and asserting his full commitment to investigating and responding to the attack. But walking that line does risk coming across as evasive, and Romney will probably seize the opportunity, as Paul Ryan did, to link the incident to a broader critique of Obama.”
“I imagine Romney will try to be more hawkish, but only to a point,” Ellis said.
Public appetite for a more aggressive military is pretty limited at this point, and there are lots of issues where it would be tough to credibly out-hawk Obama. In addition, the Republican base isn’t all that interested in foreign policy in this election cycle.
“My guess is that Romney will focus more on Obama’s failure as a leader,” Ellis said, “and, perhaps, his perceived willingness to accommodate foreign leaders above U.S. interests, than any specific, more hawkish policy proposal. Cooperation with the U.N. doesn’t always poll particularly well, so he may hit Obama on his perceived internationalism.”
For most people who are undecided at this point, not voting is probably the most likely option.
At the same time, Ellis said, “Polls usually do a pretty good job of screening out only ‘likely voters’ and reporting those results alone. So there really is a very small portion of the electorate, maybe 2 or 3 percent of the adult population as a whole, that is still persuadable and is also likely to turn out. Aside from mobilizing their bases, that’s a small sliver of the population the candidates are appealing to.”